In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 1 in 54 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, for a prevalence of 1.85% of the population. In 2012, a review of global prevalence of autism had found 62 cases per 1,000 people, for a prevalence rate of only 0.62%. This apparent 300% increase in autism prevalence is in stark contrast to all other disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), for which there has been no increase in prevalence over this same 8-year period.
A 10-year Swedish study in 2015 concluded that although the prevalence of the autism phenotype has remained stable, clinically diagnosed autism spectrum disorder has increased substantially. A 2016 study in the U.S. reported that many children originally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were later found not to be autistic. Misdiagnosed children are less likely to have been referred to and diagnosed by a specialist, and also less likely to have received a diagnosis of autism disorder or Asperger syndrome.
A 2016 study in Germany indicates that the prevalence of autism spectrum diagnoses had increased by over 70% between the years 2006 and 2012. The researchers strongly suggest that such dramatic increase was due to a significant portion of misdiagnoses. It is believed that many of the children in question may simply have had a low IQ, learning difficulties, or ADHD rather than autism.
A comprehensive 2019 study in JAMA Psychiatry indicates that autism is being significantly overdiagnosed. Dr. Laurent Motron, co-author of this study, has expressed these concerns: “The autism category has considerably overextended … most neurogenetic and child psychiatry disorders that have only a loose resemblance to with autism can now be labeled autistic … you could not have ADHD and autism before 2013, now you can.” Doctors now tend to label as autistic anyone who simply has ADHD and poor socialization.
A 2019 report in the Irish Times suggests that many children are being misdiagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when instead they have sensory processing disorder (SPD). Children are being misdiagnosed as autistic simply because of poor eye contact, not liking hugs and kisses, having poor play, and having meltdowns. An article in the Telegraph on the same theme gave an example of an 18-month old child who had been given a diagnosis of autism when his behavior became withdrawn and aggressive. A year later it was discovered that this boy had been suffering from an autoimmune condition that affects behavior.
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- Lundstrom S, Reichenberg A, et al. Autism prototype versus registered diagnosis in Swedish children prevalence trends over 10 years in general population samples. British Medical Journal 2015; April 28.
- Blumberg SJ, Zablotsky B, et al. Diagnosis lost: differences between children who had and who currently have an autism spectrum diagnosis. Autism 2016;20:783-95.
- Bachman C, Gerste B, Hoffman F. Diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders in Germany: time trends in administrative prevalence and diagnostic stability. Autism 2018;22:283-290.
- Rose J. “How many children are misdiagnosed with autism. The rates continue to rise.” Romper.com.
- Rodgaard E, Jensen K, et al. Temporal changes in effect sizes of studies comparing individuals with and without autism: a meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry online 2019; Aug. 21.
- “Are We Overdiagnosing Autism”. Healthline.com
- McDonaugh M. “Why are so many children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.” Irish Times 2019.
- Mintz L. “Are doctors diagnosing too many children with autism.” The Telegraph 2019.